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Land-use effects on fluxes of suspended sediment, nitrogen and phosphorus from a river catchment of the Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Hunter, Heather M., Walton, Richard S.
Journal of hydrology 2008 v.356 no.1-2 pp. 131-146
water pollution, nonpoint source pollution, losses from soil, nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment yield, agricultural watersheds, forested watersheds, land use, rivers, grasslands, pastures, rain forests, agricultural runoff, Queensland
A 6-year study was conducted in the Johnstone River system in the wet tropics of north-eastern Australia, to address concerns that the Great Barrier Reef is at risk from elevated levels of suspended sediment (SS) and nutrients discharged from its river catchments. Aims were to quantify: (i) fluxes of SS, phosphorus (P) and nitrogen (N) exported annually from the catchment and (ii) the influence of rural land uses on these fluxes. Around 55% of the 1602km² catchment was native rainforest, with the reminder developed mainly for livestock and crop production. Water quality and stream flow were monitored at 16 sites, with the emphasis on sampling major runoff events. Monitoring data were used to calibrate a water quality model for the catchment (HSPF), which was run with 39 years of historical precipitation and evaporation data. Modelled specific fluxes from the catchment of 1.2±1.1t SSha⁻¹ y⁻¹, 2.2±1.8kg Pha⁻¹ y⁻¹ and 11.4±7.3kg Nha⁻¹ y⁻¹ were highly variable between and within years. Fluxes of SS and P were strongly dominated by major events, with 91% of SS and 84% of P exported during the highest 10% of daily flows. On average, sediment P comprised 81% of the total P flux. The N flux was less strongly dominated by major events and sediment N comprised 46% of total N exports. Specific fluxes of SS, N and P from areas receiving precipitation of 3545mmy⁻¹ were around 3-4 times those from areas receiving 1673mmy⁻¹. For a given mean annual precipitation, specific fluxes of SS and P from beef pastures, dairy pastures and unsewered residential areas were similar to those from rainforest, while fluxes from areas of sugar cane and bananas were 3-4 times higher. Specific fluxes of N from areas with an annual precipitation of 3545 mm ranged from 8.9±6.5 kg Nha⁻¹ y⁻¹ (rainforest) to 72±50kg Nha⁻¹ y⁻¹ (unsewered residential). Aggregated across the entire catchment, disproportionately large fluxes of SS, total P and total N were derived from areas of sugar cane and banana production. Fluxes of nitrate N comprised 32% of mean annual total N flux and were disproportionately high from unsewered residential areas and from areas used for sugar cane and banana production. Notably, 60% of the total catchment flux of nitrate came from areas of sugar cane, which comprised only 12% of the total land area. Modelled scenarios suggest contemporary nitrate fluxes were nearly six times those under natural conditions (pre-development), a much greater increase than estimated for SS, total P and total N. These elevated nitrate fluxes are of particular concern for the protection of aquatic ecosystems, since nitrate is a readily bio-available form of N. Results of the study suggest management practices associated with certain land uses may need further investigation and improvement. To reduce nitrate fluxes, this includes a need to address fertiliser management in the sugar cane and banana industries and wastewater disposal practices in unsewered residential areas.